Yadkin County is losing its most famous resident.
Junior Johnson, a racing legend and lifelong resident of Yadkin County, will officially say goodbye to his hometown when his Hamptonville property is auctioned off on August 7. He has already moved to Charlotte.
Johnson wasn’t always so loved in Wilkes County, however. His history as a notorious bootlegger made him the thorn in the side of many police officers in the 1950s. That very side of Johnson would lead him to his destiny as a beloved NASCAR driver.
Johnson was born to Lora Belle Money and Robert Glenn Johnson, Sr. on June 28, 1931. He was raised on a farm in Ronda, N.C.
“Times were so hard and nobody had much money except for my dad,” Johnson said. “He would give the shirt off his back to you if that’s all he had. I thought because of what he was giving away that being able to raise money messing with whiskey was a good thing because those people couldn’t live without it.”
Johnson followed in his father’s footsteps and ventured into the bootlegging business himself at the age of 18.
“I never thought whiskey was against the law or bad or anything else because we were the only ones that had any money,” Johnson said. “As I got older I’d hear people talking, but I just kept on with it. I stayed with it until I was probably the biggest bootlegger in the entire United States at one time.”
Bootlegging wasn’t always Johnson’s plan though. He had dreams of becoming a major league baseball player. He had been practicing his pitch since he was 7 years old, throwing a ball at a bucket nailed to a barn door.
“I got to where I could hit that bucket every time I threw that ball,” Johnson said. “I got to working on the curve balls and stuff like that, and by the time I was 15 years old I was ready to play major ball.”
Johnson said that he would convince the coaches on leagues in Mount Airy, Elkin, Wilkesboro and Thomasville to let him pitch even though he was too young.
“I was big enough, and I looked like I was 22 or so,” Johnson said. “I was strongly athletic, and I could throw a ball 90 miles an hour at 15 years old.”
Baseball didn’t pan out for Johnson, though, and he turned back to bootlegging. He would take his whiskey cars to tracks in Mount Airy, Wilkesboro and Martinsville to test them out to see what they were capable of. This is where he found what would become his career.
“As time went along I was already in fast cars because I drove whiskey cars. Racing just fit,” Johnson said. “I had a knack for a fast car. It was not something you learned. It was something you were gifted for. The determination that I had at the whiskey business is what made me run a professional career.”
Johnson began his professional career in 1955. He won 16 races in his first five years of racing. In 1960 he would make a major impact on the racing community. Johnson was practicing for the Daytona 500, and he and his crew chief, Ray Fox, were trying to figure out how to increase their speed.
Johnson said that Jack Smith came up behind him, and he decided that he would follow Smith as closely as he could to see how much he would outrun him. To Johnson’s surprise his speed increased when he fell in behind Smith’s car.
“When I fell in behind him all of a sudden my car just came right up to him, and I could sit right in behind him and run because he was breaking the air for me,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I had come on to something.”
This tactic would later become known as “drafting” and has since become a common practice among NASCAR drivers. Johnson said that had he not made this discovery his NASCAR career would have probably ended much earlier.
“I was fixing to come home because I was slow, and I wouldn’t have done nothing,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t hardly outrun anybody. I decided that I would stay if I could hook on to everybody on the track. I might do some good. Sure enough I won races by drafting. That’s where it’s all come from.”
Johnson continued driving until 1966 when he retired with 50 wins and became a team owner. During his time as an owner he worked with many famous drivers such as Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Sterling Marlin and Jimmy Spencer.
Under his leadership his drivers won 132 races. With Johnson as an owner, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip won three Winston Cup Championships apiece.
“You had your ups and downs, but if you were good enough you could create a lot more ups than downs,” Johnson said.
In 1995 Johnson retired from racing. He dabbled in real estate, and he decided to create Yadkin Valley Foods, which is home to a variety of breakfast foods, pastries, snacks and beverages holding Johnson’s seal of approval.
In 2007, Johnson became part owner of Madison, N.C. company Piedmont Distillers with founder Joe Michalek. He and Michalek worked together to create Midnight Moon, which is the same recipe for moonshine that the Johnson family had been using for generations.
“It’s great; I could never, ever imagine being able to do it illegally and legally both. But the legal part of it is great,” Johnson said. “The states work with you and try to help you because they make money off it.”
Since then Johnson has been enjoying life with his family. He’s been married to his wife Lisa for 18 years. The couple has a daughter, Meredith Suzanne, and a son, Robert Glenn Johnson III.
Earlier this year Johnson fell ill. He was admitted into Duke Hospital for complications with his back and contracted a staph infection. He was hospitalized for more than a month while he battled the infection. He said many of his doctors did not expect him to pull through.
“It’s been about three months since I got out,” Johnson said. “It kills most people and it almost killed me. I weighed 220 pounds when I went in and I came out weighing 162 pounds. That’s been the worst part of my life. I’m glad I pulled through it because most people don’t.”
Johnson said that since the infection he has lost a large portion of his memory. He says that he is mainly restricted to his short term memory but he does remember details about his family and growing up.
“I feel better and I see stuff that makes me remember,” Johnson said. “We live in Charlotte now but coming up here and seeing this place, working around here and seeing the friends that I had while I was growing up has helped me a lot. If I live long enough I’ll get back to where I was at.”
Johnson is taking it all in stride and he is proud of his legacy and looks forward to what’s ahead. He decided to sell his 150 acre farm and estate because he’s not able to care for it like he wants to.
“The house is probably one of the best built houses in North Carolina I’d say,” Johnson said. “I’ve always been a person that goes beyond what’s right. I always say if it’s good then let’s go a little bit better and be great. There’s not a sturdier house than that one. I went overboard on everything that’s in it.”
The estate will be auctioned off on August 7 and one lucky NASCAR fan will get to own the home of a NASCAR and Wilkes County legend.
“I don’t think I’m any better than anybody else,” Johnson said. “I’m just a lucky guy to be able to live like I have lived and be where I’m at now. I have a real good family and I’m healthy.”
Reach Lindsay Craven at 679-2341 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.